Once Upon a Time … the Power of Storytelling for Business

Carmona's Parador (Seville)Over at StrategyFocusedHR, Ron Thomas put together, just recently, a rather interesting and intriguing blog post, under the suggestive heading “Once Upon a Time: Remember When We Could Tell a Story Without Slides?“, that I can certainly recommend everyone reading through it, specially, if you are a public speaker, and, more importantly, if you like storytelling with a business purpose. But perhaps even much more highly recommended if you feel that slides have taken over your public speaking world and, eventually, they may have become the “crutches” for your narrative. It’s a rather thought provoking read, because, in a way, it’s going to help you challenge the way you use slides for your public speaking gigs to the point where he questions whether we should be using them rather heavily, or, instead, use them as a simple guide, but no more

I guess at this point in time, we are all sensing what he really means and we probably have got an affirmative answer to his reflections; the fact that, whether we like it or not, we pretty much rely on telling stories by using PowerPoint presentations. And perhaps we shouldn’t. At least, we shouldn’t depend on them as much as we do nowadays. Ron is essentially launching a call for action to stop relying so much on slides and instead focus on sharing some good stories to get your messages across. 

I can see his point. In fact, I have probably abused myself that Death by PowerPoint a few times already, far too many, perhaps, that I would care to remember, as I have blogged about in the past, but if there is anything that I have learned in the last 6 months or so, after having been a (keynote) speaker in multiple events, is that sooner rather than later, even you, the public speaker, will burn out from PowerPoint Overload and eventually tune out. And that’s exactly the stage that I am at at the moment. And so far, although I didn’t expect it this soon, I am enjoying it quite a bit!

More than anything because, as Ron mentions on his blog post, it’s allowed me to discover a new facet as to why I’m enjoying it so much more doing all of this public speaking at various different events that I never thought I would be able to experience again anymore. Probably because of how much automation and industrialisation we have incorporated into the overall process altogether when we do presentations that we hardly leave any room, nor space, for something that we are all, human beings, really good at: telling good stories.

That’s why, back in May, I reflected on my Google Plus profile on a new experiment that I thought would be worth while going for to explore how much further along I could bring forward my own creativity when doing presentations, so knowing how buzzing my travelling schedule would be for the following couple of months I thought it would be the perfect ground to take on that new experiment: go and present in a number of various different public events without using any slides, and just delivering my speech trying to capture my main points of interest for the audience in the shape of stories, and see how far creativity would take me along without any of those “crutches for my narrative” (i.e. Slides). 

Little did I know that what eventually turned out to be quite an interesting experiment it developed into something I didn’t expect at all, to the point where it managed to break up my addiction of using slides as a way of protecting my self, my overall presence, my messages, my stories. And it was something so relatively simple, yet so powerful, that it blew off my mind when I realised about it, just as much as it does today: A new learning experience (in real time).

Indeed, there is a lot to be learned on How To Do Everything Wrong In A Presentation, as Mitch Joel would say, but there is a whole lot more to learn from doing a presentation just right and that only starts, as far as I am concerned, and based on plenty of recent experience, on how well you engage your audience. Because in most cases we don’t. I mean, how many times have we been attending a masterly presentation from a speaker only to find out that he / she has run out of time and we, the audience, don’t have a chance to engage, ask questions, share our key learnings, perhaps our very own stories, AND interact? Far too often, I would admit, and I would be guilty as charged, because I have suffered from that myself far too many times, far too often even, as a speaker. Till May 2012. 

That’s when I decided that the main reason why I was running out of time in the vast majority of cases was because my stories, my narrative, were solely based on the visual aids that I was making use of, and perhaps that’s the reason why it took that long to deliver them. Yes, I do know and fully realise that relying too heavily on your slides is not a good thing, not even a healthy one, but we have to admit that we all pretty much overdo it time and time again. So the last couple months of running this experiment of not using slides in public speaking events have taught me a couple of things:

1. Not doing slides for your presentation is Ok. No-one is going to complain about it, and if anything, they would love you for it. That’s how far we have gone into PowerPoint Overload so far… What really matters is your message, your narrative, your stories, even your own charisma as an individual; basically, what you would want the audience to walk away with when you are done, and what method you use for that it won’t matter much, as long as you deliver. 

2. Once you engage with your audience it’s adrenaline you just can’t ignore anymore. This was the major takeaway for me for the last few events that I have participated in, including the very last one I hosted, a full day summer course at the University of Pablo de Olavide, in Carmona, Seville, on “La Empresa y La Administración Pública en la Era de Las Redes Sociales” where I, finally, came to realise what I enjoy the most from public speaking. Not being in front of the audience, not being on stage, not enjoying that public flair, but, essentially, and that’s the kicker, learning from your audience. Because in most cases they are much smarter than whatever you could be.

That’s exactly right! That’s the new drug that I have gotten so used to in recent times that I can no longer neglect it, nor ignore it. That’s why whenever I am on my way to provide another speech I hardly ever look into putting together slides, but more I try to find out as much as I possibly can what the audience would be like, to then tame my messages, stories and narrative through plenty of scripting, mindmapping and reflection in order to meet their needs. Yes, I know it takes a whole lot more time, effort and energy, but it is totally worth it every penny you spend on such preparations. Basically, I decided that I would want to, on purpose, learn from the audience, just as much as they can possibly do from me, if not even more! Eventually, those presentations have turned themselves upside down from that masterly delivery of a speech, into something that’s just so rewarding that I can certainly encourage everyone to go and experience: open true dialogue. Utterly refreshing and incredibly reenergising. 

Once upon a time, as Ron would say, I used to remember what it was like doing a presentation with slides… Nowadays, though, I prefer to be there on stage, actively learning from the audience, engaging in meaningful dialogue, sharing some terrific stories that I am sure you would all agree with me that we all have deep inside ourselves, after all, we are all born natural storytellers, and eventually finish up the presentation much more energised than when I started it in the first place. Why? Well, because right there, in the audience, there is always going to be that great leader, or leaders, who “throughout history had the power to move people by telling stories. Success is won by creating compelling stories that have the power to move people“. And it looks like I have decided a couple of months back to be moved by people, as my main method of learning as a public speaker to the point that whenever I go and speak at a public event it’s no longer the audience privileged to have the presence of the speaker, but more the speaker is the privileged one to have the unique opportunity of learning from the audience through those interactions that usually happen before, during and after the session. 

And that’s how I feel, and I may well be way beyond my call of duty, that we need to transform conference events and public speaking events to become truly social events where we all do what we know we can do best: share our knowledge, tell our stories, collaborate with one another, learn from each other through conversations, storytelling, open dialogue. Not sure what you would think, but I sense it’s time to re-define the way we engage as speakers with our corresponding audience(s). I think it’s time we ditch for good our masterly slides and, instead, we put to the test our masterly skills on listening, engaging, and interacting with those who we share a common passion with in the first place. And keep up with the learning curve…

After a long, much anticipated, last, I am way all up for that … and you? 

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